Incidence and predictors of calf morbidity and mortality from birth to 6-months of age in dairy farms of northwestern Ethiopia

The Ethiopian government has initiatives for expanding the commercial and smallholder market-oriented urban and peri-urban dairy production systems to meet the demands for dairy products. However, there have been only limited on-farm studies on the health performance of commercial dairy breeds. The aim of this longitudinal study was to quantify the incidence and identify predictors of calf morbidity and mortality from birth to 6 months of age in urban and peri-urban dairy farms of Northwest Ethiopia. A total of 439 calves aged below 6 months from 174 dairy farms were included in the study. We collected data on 35 potential risk factors to determine their effect on calf morbidity and mortality in the area. Kaplan–Meier survival analysis was used to summarize survival probability. The Cox proportional hazard regression model with shared frailty to account for unmeasured herd-specific heterogeneity was also used to identify and quantify factors associated with time to morbidity and mortality. Among 439 calves enrolled for 6 months of follow-up period, a total of 141 morbidities and 54 mortality events were recorded. This gives an overall morbidity and mortality incidence rates of 64 per 100-calf 6-months at risk (risk rate of 47.3%) and 19 per 100-calf 6-months at risk (risk rate of 17.9%), respectively. Diarrhea was the most frequent calf health problem with a risk rate of 25.2%. It was the cause of death for 33.3% of all the 54 calf deaths. Next to diarrhea, pneumonia ranked second with risk rate of 8.6% and was responsible for death of 12.9% of all the 54 calf deaths. Among 35 potential risk factors, calf age, vigor status at birth, calf breed, colostrum ingestion, and herd size were significant (p < 0.05) predictors of calf morbidity and mortality. The Cox-shared frailty model revealed that the herd frailty component had no significant effect on hazard estimates of the covariates of all-cause morbidity and mortality. This implies that the dairy herds participated in the study were homogeneous in the distribution of unmeasured random effects. In conclusion, the magnitude of calf morbidity and mortality was higher and above economically tolerable level in this study. This could impede the success of Ethiopia's dairy development initiative in general, and the livelihood of smallholder dairy producers in particular. Therefore, educating farmers aimed at mitigating the identified risk factors can reduce calf morbidity and mortality in the study areas.